Growing Our Community: Growing Ourselves

By Rhonda Cobham-Sander

[  ]* indicates material omitted from the public version of this presentation, delivered on Friday, Nov. 2, 2012.

In my other life I keep trying to pretend I’m a professor who just wants to be left alone to read poetry. So before I start, I want to remind you all that I am not an expert in sexuality or identity issues, although I sometimes teach about them in one of my classes. I also want to acknowledge two really important people in this community who taught me most of what I will be sharing with you today. Charri Boykin-East, acting dean of students, first taught me how to speak about many of the ideas I will be presenting here. While I was special assistant to the president for diversity, Stephen Butler, our staff trainer in the Human Resources Office, taught me how to listen to what people in the college community were saying about what they needed from the institution so they could feel respected and included. Thank you, both of you.

So I want to ask you to think with me about two things:

How do we acknowledge the many different positions from which each of us has responded to the events of the last few weeks?

What kinds of tools and models do we have as a community to think about where we go from here?

I don’t think any one person can answer these questions for everyone, but I want you to keep two things in mind as you attempt to listen to each other:

People change constantly in response to new information and new experiences.

Institutions can change as well.

The models for thinking about change that I am going to share are deliberately schematic—that is, they imagine change as a series of steps. We all know that in real life change often involves one step forward and two steps back. But if we have some landmarks to help us gauge where we are now, as individuals and as an institution, we’ll feel more confident about taking the next steps.

Beverly Tatum argues, in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, that inequalities arise when one group of people benefits systematically over another from privileges they may not even realize they have.

Tatum lists familiar systems of privilege: racial (white versus nonwhite); gender (men versus women); heterosexual privilege (straight versus queer); class (rich versus poor); and physical privilege (able-bodied versus disabled). She stresses that we don’t get to choose whether we benefit from privilege or not, so dismantling the system takes real effort. Unfortunately, we don’t usually get to opt out of the disadvantaged side of any of those binaries either, and that can leave the disadvantaged person vulnerable to assault, discrimination or exclusion on a daily basis.

Tatum also reminds us that a person who benefits from a system of privilege in one area may belong to a disadvantaged group in another area. She, like me, describes herself as a black woman who, though she faces significant racial and gender discrimination, can take for granted the many advantages of being heterosexual, able-bodied, educated and financially secure. And she cautions us, when thinking about diversity in a holistic fashion, against demonizing individuals or holding up one group’s oppression as more valid than another’s.

Tatum insists that we can dismantle systems of inequality on both sides of the divide, and she maps out stages in identity development to help us chart that progress. But the only way we can move from one stage to another is by building relationships across differences, gathering information, asking questions, reflecting on what we learn and then acting on that knowledge. In short, by doing all the things colleges claim they want their students to do.

In a moment, I’m going to read out a modified version of those stages to you, but before I do so, I want you to focus on one identity you can claim on the privileged side of the list. Since our focus today is on sexual respect, and women and gay men are the most frequent victims of sexual assault, those of you who benefit from gender and heterosexual privilege may want to keep one of those identities in mind as I go through the list of stages. Because our community privileges the able-bodied, I am sure most of you who occupy multiple positions of disadvantage will be able to identify at least one category of privilege you enjoy among the ones I’ve named.

So, focus on an area of privilege associated with your identity as I read through these stages, based very loosely on Tatum’s stages of identity development. If it helps you to focus, you can jot down the stages that sound like something you’ve experienced on a piece of paper or on your mobile device.

Stages of identity development for people who benefit from privilege:

  1. I never really think about myself as privileged in this way, and, anyway, I don’t think it really matters much to anything I do.
  2. I guess I do enjoy certain privileges, but that’s just the way the world is.
  3. I know I’m privileged, but I can’t do anything about it. All this talk about privilege just makes me feel guilty.
  4. Shut up already! I’m tired of having to apologize for my existence. All this whining and hand-wringing is such a colossal waste of time. I should have just slept in.
  5. I do profit from my privilege in ways that are unfair. I’m going to try really hard to be aware of when that is happening.
  6. I am going to work with others who share my privilege to educate myself about its costs and find ways to dismantle it.
  7. By educating myself and acting with others, I have been able to develop lasting ties, which are based on trust, openness and equality, with people within and beyond my group.

A couple things to note about these stages: The most explicitly angry stage (4) comes after the stage where people feel really guilty, but helpless, and just before the stage where they could start taking action. So people who are acting angry and defensive often may be further along in the process of awareness and self-education than others who have never really thought of themselves as privileged, and thus never really had to defend their position.

Tatum’s model acknowledges that people often move back and forth between different stages or that they may simply stagnate. But her underlying point is that you never really get to skip the hard parts. Thinking critically about something you used to be able to take for granted feels uncomfortable. It will make you feel guilty and defensive and angry and sad before it moves you to action. 

One final point: Tatum assumes that the group with privilege is responsible for educating itself once it understands the problem. [She titled her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? with this concept in mind. She argues that in our zeal to integrate groups, we often overlook the ways in which people seek out others they perceive to be like them in times of stress. She maintains that, with proper facilitation, we can learn a lot from others who share our subject position but who may be further along in their stages of identity development. We need to work across heterogeneous groups to find commonalities, but we also need to work within homogenous groups to explore differences.]*

There is a real payoff, though, for those who make it through these developmental stages. Once we begin to act to dismantle our privilege, we often find we can make connections to new communities, new ways of experiencing and understanding the world and new imaginative possibilities.


*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *


So now I want you to switch hats and think about an area in which you know YOU are exposed to systematic discrimination. For those of you who don’t see a category of disadvantage that includes you, try thinking about what we call secondary categories of privilege or disadvantage—the kinds of inequalities that arise when a group you’ve chosen to belong to, or happen to have grown up in, gives you an extra leg up or leads to your being unfairly stigmatized by others.

Stages of identity development for people who are exposed to systemic disadvantage:

  1. I never really thought of myself as disadvantaged, and I’m not convinced it’s that important.
  2. I guess I am discriminated against on account of my X, but maybe that’s only to be expected. You have to admit that, as a group, we are really (negative stereotype).
  3. It frustrates me, always having to feel vulnerable because I am X. I wish I could just escape my identity and be someone else.
  4. I just hate all the people who discriminate against X. They are so stupid! They don’t even realize how many people’s lives they’ve destroyed! I don’t trust a single one of them. I hope they all rot in hell!
  5. I’m not going to let them get to me. I’ll just work twice as hard and beat them at their own game. (This is one we Americans really like.)
  6. This is a system. We aren’t going to change it just by beating the odds every now and then. We have to organize among ourselves and strategize with allies outside our group to dismantle systems that perpetuate our discrimination.
  7. Now that I’ve worked with my group and others outside of it to help make change happen, I feel open to developing relationships of trust, openness and equality with people inside and outside of my group who share my goals.

Hang on to your notes, if you made any. You’ll get a chance to review these steps in our first small group session. But notice that, although we realize when a system works to our disadvantage much more quickly than we appreciate when it works for us, the identity development processes in both instances go through very similar stages. Stage 4, especially, on both sides looks very similar. On both sides we can get stuck (with good reason) somewhere in the middle, between anger and despair.

Beverly Tatum developed the model I am drawing on very loosely here while teaching in the Psychology Department at Mount Holyoke College. By following the journals of the students who took her courses, she was able to document how, with access to information and good models for communicating across difference, a developmental process like the one she facilitated could work in a community like ours. If we can see ourselves as part of a dynamic process instead of just assuming we have to stay stuck in stereotypical positions of victimhood or privilege, we can find ways to make change happen.


*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *


So what about Amherst College? Can an institution change? What are the steps it has to go through for change to become a permanent part of its culture?

In an article called “The Path from Exclusive Club to Inclusive Organization,” Judith Katz and Frederick Miller lay out the steps it takes to make big changes in an institutional setting. You’ve had to listen now for a long time, so I’m only going to summarize what they say. But this time I’m going to give you some examples from our history as a college to guide you as you think about the steps that are most relevant to Amherst.

Katz and Miller identify six stages that institutions pass through as they move from being exclusive clubs to inclusive organizations, and I’m sorry if they sound like the stages of grief—maybe they are. They are as follows:

  • The exclusive club
  • The passive club
  • Symbolic difference
  • Critical mass
  • Acceptance
  • Inclusive organization

As with the stages of development for individuals, these stages don’t always proceed in an orderly fashion. In addition, because organizations are larger than individuals and contain many subdivisions, one part of an organization may progress more quickly than another. Amherst today, for instance, has three times as many students of color than it did 25 years ago, but less than half the number of Black faculty.

Katz and Miller’s model for thinking about the way an organization changes its culture gives us language and perspective for thinking about the prevalence of sexual assault at Amherst within the context of gender changes at the college over the last 50 years. It also gives us a way to reflect on diversity more broadly. As Katz and Miller point out, knowing what we have achieved will help us understand why we are where we are today. Knowing what to expect as we move forward can help members of our community develop realistic expectations about the challenges that lie ahead.

So let’s get back to the model. Katz and Miller group their six stages into three groups of two. In the first two stages, the institution values the dominance of a single culture, style or group. In the last two stages, the institution values diverse cultures, styles and groups. But in the middle two stages, the stages of symbolic difference and critical mass, both sets of values are present, and that’s often a time of real turbulence. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I think most of Amherst has been stuck in those two middle stages for the last 50 years when it comes to issues of gender, race and class. Today we may be experiencing the beginning of a conversation that could move us out of the period of transition, where difference is merely tolerated, to something new and exciting.

What does a community at the symbolic stage of diversity look like? According to Katz and Miller:

Symbolic Difference organizations often characterize themselves as fair because they are “color-blind” or “gender-blind” in their actions, policies, and practices. They make sure that women, people with disabilities, and members of designated racial groups receive equal opportunities—as long as they behave like the dominant group. All are given the opportunity to become “one of the boys.” Rather than expecting the organization to change to accept a wider range of expressions, behaviors, and perspectives, newcomers are expected to adopt the organization’s existing culture. To survive, they must learn to fit in. Those who do not fit in are eventually cast out; they leave, are fired, or get isolated in positions in which they cannot disrupt the mainstream operations of the organization. (6)

I think this describes the Amherst I came into 25 years ago. When the college ushered in its first women students, it had not put in place new systems to educate faculty or students about how to accommodate gender difference. A lot of people in the community behaved badly towards female faculty and students in the first 20 years of coeducation. Many of the women who had started their careers at Amherst in the 1970s had left or been pushed out by the early 1980s. For a full account of this period in the college’s history, have a look at the Amherst website on Half a Century of Women Teaching at Amherst: Gender Matters, developed by two of those early pioneer women who survived, Buffy Aries and Jane Taubman.

In the mid-1980s, when I arrived at Amherst, the college was making a concerted effort to change that dynamic. A new cohort of women joined the faculty, a Department of Women and Gender Studies was created, and over the next 10 years, the numbers of female students at the college crept up to meet, and occasionally surpass, the number of men. In addition, gay and lesbian faculty members no longer felt it was unsafe to come out of the closet, and many members of the student body followed their lead. At the turn of the 21st century, the college began to hire many more senior female administrators. Nevertheless, socially and organizationally, the culture of the college remained pervasively masculine. [When the first (and only) professionally trained Affirmative Action Officer, Ms. Hermenia Gardner, joined the college’s staff, after the Rodney King riots, she did her very best to institute practices that would keep all the constituencies on campus informed about and responsive to issues of race, gender, sexuality and class privilege. However, she remained a marginal figure, working as best she could with pockets of disadvantaged groups but virtually ignored by the groups in the institution who wielded power.]*

In general, though, the culture of Amherst today seems closer to the next stage in the Katz and Miller model, the “critical mass stage.” This is how they describe it:

As an organization continues to add members who are different from the original group, many things begin to change. The old monocultural norms and stereotypes no longer fit, but there are no new standards and procedures to take their place. …this is the point of critical mass. Tolerance of differences becomes of major importance. This also includes tolerance for uncertainty, tolerance of mistakes and tolerance for conflict. Individuals and organizations seem to stretch to the breaking point… When an organization reaches this stage without a commitment and a plan for strategic culture change, confusion reigns. (8)

Anyone who has lived through the last few months at Amherst will recognize immediately how accurate this is as a description of where we are now. We seem to be spending all our time putting out fires, intervening between groups and trying to find ways to get people to talk about their differences as we try to help students who’ve been victimized or feel excluded or who feel they have been the unfair targets of criticism. [As the student body has become more diverse, efforts to train and diversify the faculty and staff so as to better support vulnerable groups of students continue to be staffed by relatively untrained individuals drawn from the faculty or administration (myself included). We have usually been asked to take on new responsibilities alongside everything else we have to do and rarely received adequate resources to support that work. Katz and Miller warn us that at this point many organizations stop or slow down their efforts.] *

But all is not lost, according to this model. The authors point out two important ways in which things lurch forward during periods like the one we’re in: One is that the sheer numbers of community members from groups other than the original “founding” groups make it impossible for anyone to lump all the newcomers together. Individual alliances start to spring up as people in traditionally established groups and newer groups begin to coalesce spontaneously in order to make change happen. The authors also assure us that meaningful change during this period does not need to involve everyone. “All it takes,” they claim, “is a sufficiently committed core with a credible voice within the institution.”

The last point Katz and Miller stress about intervening during a stage of critical mass is the importance of developing a new cadre of leaders. If the old ways don’t work and new standards have yet to be defined, an institution needs strong leaders at every level who can model appropriate behaviors and communicate with all kinds of different constituencies. 

And leadership isn’t just about who’s at the top of the administration. One of the main resources an organization needs at this point is people at all levels—on the staff, in the faculty and among the students—who can formulate creative solutions to unexpected conflicts as they arise, without losing sight of long term goals like the need for structural changes. The college has yet to tap the leadership and conflict-resolution skills of its staff, many of whom, in their lives beyond the college, hold positions as leaders and facilitators in their towns, churches and associations. However, over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve been very impressed with how students have come forward to take leadership in this crisis. Today our breakout groups will be led by 120 trained student facilitators working in pairs, who responded to the call from their student president and vice president within 24 hours.

In closing, I want to say a few words about the final stages Katz and Miller lay out, in which acceptance and inclusion become the norm. I don’t think Amherst is there yet, but the most important developments in that stage happen when difference stops being something we merely tolerate and becomes something we value on its own terms. Accepting difference actually may help us see more rather than fewer similarities between community members from different backgrounds.

So, instead of rewarding a small group of outliers for transcending difference and fitting in, as happens in the symbolic difference stage, or having to focus all our resources on conflict resolution, as happens in the critical mass stage, there’s a shared assumption that having more than one cultural approach to solving a problem or imagining a solution is a good thing. Instead of constantly citing precedents and worrying about diluting the brand, members of the community initiate new approaches to finding collaborators in the workplace across traditional boundaries; they undertake innovations in teaching and learning that draw explicitly on the strengths of a diverse student body. In the social realm, I would hope that a respect for difference across categories of gender and sexuality would encourage women and men to embrace both platonic and erotic relationships as opportunities for exploration, camaraderie and joy. 

Katz and Miller warn against the “myth of the happy ending.” They remind us that to the extent that inequality persists in the outside world, even the most progressive establishment will have to exercise constant vigilance to educate its members and reinforce new values. Since fresh cohorts of students cycle through the college every four years, the work of educating successive student cohorts is never done. But that’s our job.

In closing, then, I want to leave you with a short poem, which I hope will help you through the rest of our shared day. It’s written by Dennis Scott, one of my favorite Caribbean writers. From a conventional perspective, Scott experienced many failures. He never achieved the acclaim for his poetry that his more famous contemporary, Derek Walcott, has enjoyed. He died a lingering and premature death. But through his art he succeeded in teaching himself how to live a life of principle and consequence. In a poem he penned in his final months and addressed to his son, he turns for images of resilience and hope to the work of Caribbean fishermen, casting their hand knotted nets from the shore and battling with the relentless weight of the surging tides. I offer those images to you now, as we contemplate difficult processes, whose outcomes remain shrouded in uncertainty.


I am trying to live with the ease of those men,
foot-firm on the shelved sand,
They knit thick hands in the net. They fish silently.
The sea falls back though its weave
heavy as sleep,
or they couldn’t work that weight, that green
muscle, could not bend
the clear-eyed fish from its furl, into air.

So I leave spaces in my life,
like the hungry silences of fishermen.
I tie words into rough threads
and drag with them
not what falls through, what leaves salt on the face,
but those quick, lovely images
that mind catches, leaping
among the day’s drift
the heart’s hurl
the blood’s breaking
the web-twist of
this world’s wet dazzle.



Frederick Miller and Judith Katz, The Path from Exclusive Cub to Inclusive Organization: A Developmental Process. The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group Inc, 1995 Rvd. 2002,2003

Dennis Scott, "Letter to My Son -VIII" in Strategies.  Kingston JA: Sandberry Press, 1989

Beverly Tatum, "Why are all the Black Kids sitting together in the Cafeteria?" and other Conversations about Race. New York: Basic Books, 2003